Col. Halbert Eleazer Paine

A studio portrait of Col. Halbert Eleazer Paine of Wisconsin’s 4th Cavalry, who in 1862 disobeyed orders to return fugitive slaves to their owners and to burn the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Society depends on people obeying rules for the common good, but sometimes conscience is stronger than conformity.

This happened twice in 1862 to Col. Halbert Paine of Wisconsin’s 4th Cavalry, who disobeyed orders to return fugitive slaves to their owners and to burn the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Paine came to Milwaukee in 1857 and joined the law office of German revolutionary Carl Schurz. When the Civil War broke out, he led his regiment to the Gulf Coast, where they fought at New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

On June 5, 1862, Paine was ordered to send African-American slaves who’d taken refuge among his troops back to their owners.

“What will be their fate if delivered up to claimants or hunters is easy to predict,” he wrote in his refusal to his commanding officer. His men gave him three cheers as he was arrested and taken away.

Two months later, Paine’s superior was killed. He was released from jail and put in charge of Union-occupied Baton Rouge. When Confederates tried to retake it, he was ordered to burn the city down.

Again he refused to obey, avoiding arrest this time by persuading his commanding officer to his own viewpoint. Instead of destroying the city, he ordered its library moved to New Orleans for safe keeping.

Nine months later, Paine lost his left leg leading his men into battle. He returned to Milwaukee in October 1864 and almost as soon as he reached home, was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served from 1865-1871.

— Wisconsin Historical Society

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